Aimee Cebulski recalled chatting with Simona, a sommelier in Brescia, Italy, a stone's throw from a church.
The topic at hand? Why it is such a big deal to be a 40-year-old unmarried woman without children.
"[We were] wondering if it was a sin or something — when right on cue, the large bell at the church next door began to toll loudly," Cebulski said. "We both cracked up and said someone must have been listening!"
Italy was a pit stop for Cebulski on a two-year journey to complete her first book, "The Finding 40 Project."
Wanderlust led the 41-year-old San Diego resident to 10 countries, including Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, France, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates. She also traversed the United States and Skyped with women from India and Pakistan in an effort to peel back what it means to be 40 years old within the framework of different cultures.
"I tried to pick places that were different — geographically, politically and sociologically," said the Huntington Beach High School alum. "[I went] where I was interested in getting to know a new culture or a place where I thought women would have interesting things to say or I could find women in a short amount of time. There was no criteria other than they needed to be 40 or about to be 40."
The idea was sparked by Cebulski's best friend's 40th birthday two years ago, when her counterparts asked how she would celebrate her milestone year. Realizing how much turning 40 meant to her, she thought it would be interesting to investigate the role of that specific birth year in the lives of other women.
She then spent the following two years traveling, interviewing 35 subjects — with the help of translators where necessary — and wrapping up the project a fortnight before turning 41 in February this year.
Cebulski's work devotes a chapter to each woman, who is identified by her first name and city, state, country or province. The women, while identified by a signature photograph, were not asked to disclose their full names in the hope that it would embolden them to speak more freely, she said.
These women were discovered through friends, social media and Cebulski's work with a San Diego-based nonprofit called Project Concern International, as well as "hitting the pavement and being a detective."
"That's how I found the woman in Abu Dhabi — by going from office to office and location to location and asking around," said Cebulski, who was always prepared with her Nikon D5000, computer and notepad. "Sometimes the conversations were set up in advance, sometimes they were the luck of the draw and sometimes they were fate."
The author's story is the last chapter, in which she answered the same 25 questions as her interviewees, along with commenting on what lessons she'd learned from the venture, which was made possible by living frugally.
"I traveled on the cheap, used frequent flier miles and any deals possible," said Cebulski, who split costs with her traveling partner and longtime boyfriend, Jeff. "We ate food at supermarkets and stayed at hostels. It was not a fancy trip."
During her encounters, which she penned on the go, Cebulski encountered a broad cross-section of women. One from the Ecuadorian highlands had seven children and a grandchild but couldn't pinpoint her birthday or age without the help of ID, while another in India was an HIV educator who discovered she was positive because her husband died of AIDS.
She also fondly remembers conversations with Shamsa in Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates, who swore her to secrecy in an "experience that transcended culture and distance."
Regardless of the women's origin, she noted that they all talked about the role of money in their daily lives, believed they were faring better physically than they thought they would, were smarter than they'd given themselves credit for, and, in retrospect, would like to have taken more risks when opportunities had presented themselves.
"Many of them said that they wished they had put themselves first or not put their dreams aside for someone else," Cebulski said. "It's so much the nature of women to put the needs of others ahead of ourselves — as a daughter, sister, wife or mother. They wished they'd fought for what they wanted more."
Cebulski publishes under her own brand Passport Duck Press, named in honor of her loyal cohort — a plastic rubber duck covered with passport stamps. Not only does "Passport Duck" feature in a photograph wherever Cebulski finds herself, but it also helped her overcome a fear of flying. She has visited 46 countries to date.
"The duck's got more photo opportunities than I do!" she joked.
A portion of Cebulski's book sales will benefit Project Concern International, which works to prevent disease, improve community health and promote sustainable development.
Having come in contact with societies where oppression replaces education as a linchpin, Cebulski reflects that she won the "birth lottery" by being born an American.